Steven Wilson is allergic to expectation. The multitude of musical twists Hemel Hempstead’s favourite son’s career has taken have been matched in lockstep by eruptions of disgruntlement from fans taking umbrage at the fact he’s not made In Absentia for the 137th time.
The fulmination levels shot off the scale when Wilson sprang Personal Shopper on an unsuspecting public as a taster for his sixth solo album. Here was a pulsing, strangely sexy 10-minute hymn to modern consumer culture that sounded like it had been manufactured in some chrome-walled electronics lab, while a passing Elton John reeled off a long list of lavish but unnecessary items that he’d probably bought off the internet that morning. Slave To The Algorithm, if you will.
Those who hit ‘unlike’ on Wilson’s Facebook page halfway through the first listen probably made the right choice. The rest of The Future Bites mostly sticks to that same format: light on front-and-centre guitar, heavy on shapeshifting electronics, unexpected vocal interlocutions and a general sense that this is what the robots in Amazon warehouses listen to when the humans have all gone home. But anyone who does stick around will get to hear one of the boldest and best albums Wilson has ever made.
The Future Bites isn’t a retro synthpop album, as its early detractors predicted. Quite the opposite: Personal Shopper and the glitchy gothtronica of standout track King Ghost exist half a beat in the future, predicting what’s just about to happen rather than casting a nostalgic eye back to the 80s.
There’s a theme running through it – not a concept so much as a commentary on our rapacious appetite for stuff in a world where an unseen hand dictates our choices for us. That it was conceived by a man who has never met an expensive 12-disc box set he didn’t want to remix adds to the self-aware irony. If we’re going down, we’re going down shopping.
Still, it’s not all driverless cars and The Internet Of Things. There’s humanity at the heart of The Future Bites. Eminent Sleaze is playful and knowing, its sawing strings and whooshing keyboards almost giving way to popping white boy funk, before it remembers who exactly is making it and pulls itself back from the edge. And a more recognisable Wilson emerges on 12 Things I Forgot, the closest he comes here to a traditional ‘rock’ song.
The latter may be too little too late. The Future Bites undoubtedly marks a tipping point for Steven Wilson, and even more so for a segment of his fanbase. For some, there will be no coming back after this. That’s sad, because they’re missing out on something special.